AppleWatch and smart technology are brilliant for people with Usher Syndrome!
I have Usher Syndrome, which means I was born deaf and in the last ten years I have lost most of my sight. What I see in good light is like looking through a small letterbox. The bits out to the side and above and below are a white, misty haze. In dim light, or at night: I am almost completely blind.
If there was ever a good time to be losing your sight when you are already deaf, it is 2016. We are on the verge of great technology breakthroughs that will help to level the playing field even for those who are both deaf and blind. Driverless cars, haptic virtual reality, wearable technology - they will all soon be an everyday reality.
Learning to live with sight loss, when you are already deaf, can be pretty inconvenient. The world just isn’t designed with deafblind people in mind. It’s the little things that are most stressful. The things that most people wouldn’t think of. There are dozens of small daily irritations that pile up, and erode confidence, until the least tiring option is simply not to go out.
My cane and my guide dog are brilliant for awareness and mobility. I wouldn’t be without either of these things, but they don’t solve the whole gamut of other stresses that deafblind people face.
Now enter, centre stage - The AppleWatch!
This little unassuming piece of tech has already made my life as a deafblind person much easier, but what has really blown my mind is the potential that it offers deafblind people for more relaxed, equal lives.
I was kindly given my AppleWatch by the Molly Watt Trust who are on a mission to improve the lives of those with Usher Syndrome, by providing them with accessible technology. Molly Watt, who is also deafblind due to Usher Syndrome, was an early and enthusiastic exponent of the AppleWatch.
What the AppleWatch does for me
I used to rely wholly on my cumbersome iPhone6+ to help me to navigate the maze of London’s streets with my guide dog. Most people don’t realise that you need both hands to work a guide dog, and I had to clumsily juggle the lead, harness and phone, while trying to orientate myself to where I was going. The sun’s glare often made it impossible for me to read the screen. I was stopped twice by police officers telling me to put my phone away, apparently, 'a blind person carrying a phone is asking for trouble'.
My new AppleWatch has made things so much easier. I simply key in my route on my phone, pop it in my bag and the watch, hidden safely on my wrist, vibrates to tell me to go left and right using two different tactile pulses. Another signal lets me know when I have arrived at my destination. It is such a simple idea and so damn enabling.
Just three weeks after I got the watch, my guide dog and I entered a month-long team steps challenge at my work place. Together, we walked almost 200 miles through the busy streets of London, simply by following the vibrations of the AppleWatch and the simple on screen instructions. For the first time ever, it felt like we owned the streets. The whole of London has opened up to me for the first time since I lost my sight.
ApplePay is another revelation. No more fumbling in a dark bag for my purse while impatient queues wait behind me. No more worrying that I won’t be able to see the keypad numbers in dimly lit venues. I just hold up my wrist to the card sensor, and the AppleWatch vibrates to let me know that I have paid. Simples. No sight, vision or even communication required. Paying in shops is now stress free.
I am able to use a timer for cooking for the first time. Wherever I am in the house, the AppleWatch will vibrate and let me know the food is ready. There is no more relying on my nose to catch that first whiff of burning dinner. There’s even an app for timing boiled eggs.
At work, we have a system that alerts deaf employees to the fire alarm via a text message sent to our mobile phones. These notifications are really easy to miss unless I happen to be holding my phone when the message arrives. Now, the alerts go straight to the AppleWatch on my wrist and I have complete peace of mind that I will never miss the fire alarm again.
Other people can use their own AppleWatch to nudge me to get my attention by tapping on their watch face; I feel it as a tap on my wrist. Colleagues can easily let me know that they are in the room, or that they want to start a conversation, or my family could call me when dinner is ready. I cannot wait for this function to work from any mobile phone because not many people have watches yet. That would be an amazing thing for people like me, to know that literally anyone could instantly get my attention if they needed to.
My hopes for the AppleWatch
I have a long wish list for my AppleWatch. The possibilities of wearable haptic technology have completely blown my mind. It is such fertile territory for developers and innovators. I really hope some clever people somewhere are reading this and realising how they could transform people’s lives. Not only that, but many of the functions that I am wishing for are things that everyone would find useful. There is no reason why all this functionality could not go mainstream. Separate niche products for deaf, deafblind or blind people are not necessary. Please just run with these ideas and make technology that will enable everyone!
My top 10 wishes for the AppleWatch
- Travel Deafblind friends have found themselves stranded at the end of the line or even in railway sidings. Using the CityMapper app, I can set my AppleWatch to vibrate to alert me when I reach the right station or bus stop. This is great on dark winter nights when I struggle to see anything out of the window at all. I cannot see the station signs or hear the announcements. It would be great if in future the station tannoy and platform changes could be relayed via Bluetooth to my AppleWatch. The watch could pulse when the train you want to board is pulling into the platform.
- Haptic navigation on tube, or inside hotels and shops would be incredible. Shops could use haptic technology to guide people to their store and let them know when they have arrived, and then to help them quickly locate what they want on the shelves. This would help everyone save time but would be real game changers for blind and deafblind people.
- Alerting me to sounds At the moment our family have a vibrating Bellman’s pager system, which alerts me to the doorbell, landline, fire alarm and baby alarm. It’s a faff because one of us has to carry a designated pager around the house and it invariably ends up being dropped down the loo or getting lost. It would make so much more sense for these things to transmit alerts to the AppleWatch, along with all the other things that beep in the house like the alarm clock, microwave, washing machine, burglar alarm and carbon monoxide alarm. Some of this smart technology already exists, but nighttime remains a big problem for deaf and deafblind people. How would we be awoken in the night when the watch is being charged? The Bellman pager plugs into a rechargeable unit that has a separate vibrating pad that goes under the pillow while I sleep. Similar technology for the AppleWatch would be amazing.
- Alerting me to visual thing The AppleWatch could easily be connected to kitchen scales and water sensors for filling baths or making cups of tea. For some people with bad tunnel vision it is tricky to see who is at the door, because they are standing too close to see the whole of their face. Using the AppleWatch with a doorbell camera, they could check the person’s identity before they open the door because it is easier to see a whole face on a little screen.
- Helping with the housework I wonder if there will ever be smart surfaces with sensors that could tell you when things are fully clean, like a smart floor that tells you if you have left washing on the floor or bits on a work surface, or a chopping board. It would help to be sure that you had found every single rice crispie or shard of glass on the floor - sighted people and clean freaks would no doubt want this functionality too!
- One remote control for everything I never need to lose the remote again! A Samsung TV app already lets me use my AppleWatch to channel surf. In future, many more things could be controlled from my wrist. I could lower the glare of the lighting, calibrate the TV subtitles to make the font easier to read, and the TV volume could be streamed to Bluetooth hearing aids or cochlear implants. I could operate the thermostat and even the cooker using accessible large print on my wrist.
- The internet of things More and more objects in our environment will be connected to the Internet in future. It will be easy to find lost glasses, house keys using the AppleWatch (Or even one on each wrist to allow pulses to work in synchrony to give the deafblind person as sense of their orientation in space and to guide them to the desired object. The intensity of the pulses on each wrist could change as you moved closer or further away). I would never need to lose things or ask other people to help me find things again. Using a smart bracelet or collar, the same idea could give a sense of where your guide dog was on a free run or whether your young child was still close by.
Going even deeper into the future road surfaces and street furniture could all be connected to the internet of things so that a blind person would know precisely when to step down a kerb or around a lamp post. Even wet floor signs could be tagged to send an alert. Traffic lights could be connected to internet of things to send an alert to the apple watch to let you know when it is safe to cross. Bikes and driverless cars could come with alerting technology for deaf and blind people as standard. Deaf people could be alerted to ambulances and sirens, or when a lorry is reversing near them.
- Communication It’s very tiring communicating when you are deaf with tunnel vision. In long meetings or dark places, I often use the video camera screen on my iPhone to understand people talking or signing. This is much easier to see signs and lipread on the screen with my small visual field. It is a shame that I cannot yet use my AppleWatch to do the same thing. In the dark, I would love to quickly switch on video mode and scan the environment to orientate myself to everything around me that I cannot see. It helps me to see who is in the room and where any obstacles are. I fantasize about smart glasses, which could help me deal with painful glare, by changing filters at the tap of a wrist, with a myriad of different coloured lenses for every lighting situation, for computer work, and dealing with the blinding winter sun and bleaching caused by the summer sun. No doubt smart sunglasses would be hugely popular in the mainstream too. I also dream that smart glasses could use a hidden video screen to shrink the world to the size of my visual field, and night vision cameras to enable me to see again at night. Alternatively, I’d love to be about to use the AppleWatch to project a screen onto a wall upon which I could project the image of someone signing close to me, so that they appear further away and I would be able to see their hand movements once again. At parties it would be great to have an alarm or a light that flashed to remind others that they are standing too close to you for clear communication - each Usher person could set their own personal communication distance- which they could change as their tunnel vision worsened over time. The watch could glow and change to a certain colour to remind other people that in dim light the person would like to chat via hand-over-hand tactile sign language. The deafblind person could flash the light to alert those around them if they needed sighted assistance. There would be less social awkwardness, if these simple signals became well understood in the Deaf community. This could help end the uncertainty around etiquette of how best to include an Usher person at a dark social event.
- Smart house technology combined with the AppleWatch is going to be brilliant for deafblind people. Lights can be set to come on as you enter a room, sensors can let you know when someone arrives or leaves, or whether the fridge or cupboard door has been left open, whether there are trip hazards, chairs sticking out from under tables or that special kind of pain, an open dishwasher.
- Personalised accessibility The times when I really notice my deafblindness most is when go to stay at other people’s houses or visit a hotel, a pub or a restaurant. It would be great if I could put a temporary sensor on that step I keep stubbing my toe on at my friend’s house. In future, I could compute my personalized access needs into my AppleWatch such as using Bluetooth to locate the toilet in a restaurant, and then the light switch, loo paper and hand wash too! Personalised lighting requirements would automatically mean the lights brightened at my pub table when I sat down or my path to the loo would be brightly lit in a hotel. Every TV set I watched would automatically be set to my preferred subtitle large font when I came into range. Suddenly my friends’ houses would be fully accessible too.
- Exercise I could use the AppleWatch in a sailing boat to receive haptic commands from the skipper, or to get instructions when I am riding a bike or skiing, to tell me to move to the left or right. Deafblind people could play ballgames if haptic wristwatches helped them to locate the ball.
- 24/7 enablement Once the AppleWatch can do all these things, I will never want to be separated from it again. It needs to be totally waterproof so it can be worn in the bath or while swimming. The vibrations also need to a lot stronger so that they can be felt more easily during exertion, or when my arm is swinging up and down on the handle of my guide dog harness.
The possibilities for AppleWatch are endless and it made me really hopeful writing this, to know that at least some of these things might be in the pipeline. Life in future is set to get a lot easier for a deaf person who is going blind. The AppleWatch may well be a game changer for deafblind people. Let’s hope so.